Flexible working legislation 'unwieldy and bureaucratic'


A new survey has found that most employers already have flexible working mechanisms in place and view forthcoming legislation giving parents new statutory rights as unnecessarily bureaucratic and unwieldy.

On 6 April 2003 the new flexible working legislation will become law. From this date, parents of children aged under six or of disabled children aged under 18 will have a statutory right to request that their employers consider an application to work flexibly.

But a new report, The Right to Request, by law firm Linklaters and campaigning charity Parents At Work, has revealed that nearly 54 per cent of employers surveyed said their current procedures were successful but would still need changing to satisfy the new legislation.

The report surveyed 28 major organisations, the smallest employing 250 staff and the largest 135,000 staff, which between them employed nearly three quarters of a million people in a wide range of sectors including financial services, IT and communications, manufacturing, media, and pharmaceuticals.

Many employers surveyed were concerned that the new legal process will be more unwieldy than their current practice on handling flexible working requests. They wished to comply with the legislation, whilst continuing to offer the range of working options that have proved successful for their businesses and their employees.

“Bureaucratic is the term used by many organisations” said Maggy Meade-King of Parents at Work. “They see the legislation as narrow as it only applies to parents with children under six. It is good for smaller firms as it gives them a model but I can see how it can be irritating for larger firms.”

”We welcome the legislation but we are withholding judgement as to how well it will work. Caveats need to be put in place as it only offers the right to request flexible hours,” she added.

An overwhelming 82 per cent of respondents to the survey said that they already had a formal flexible working policy, with 68 per cent also providing guidance for staff on putting together an application.

But only a small minority of firms have any formal means of monitoring the consistency of responses to flexible working requests, the report reveals. Apart from financial services firm ABN AMRO, formal means of monitoring were not widespread.

Three quarters of employers said that the new legislation would not make them more likely to grant a flexible working request because they had their own policies in place. But significantly, 71 per cent said that the new legislation means that they will introduce a formal appeals procedure for employees whose requests to work flexibly are denied. Currently, only 57 per cent of organisations offer employees the formal right to appeal.

Raymond Jeffers, head of employment at Linklaters, said that the new legislation was likely to raise awareness of good flexible working models. “On the negative side,” he added “the new law is likely to require a more bureaucratic process than most employers’ current, less formal practices. Also, as the legislation is aimed at one small group - of parents that fit the criteria - that could possibly lead to division in the workplace.”

Parents at Work is a campaigning charity, which provides information and support to working parents, and helps employers to reap the business benefits of work-life balance practice.

The Right to Request contains a handbook to the new legislation, and guidance for employers on implementing it, including clear explanations on how to assess an application. It is illustrated by case studies of current successful practice in major companies including HBOS, Lloyds TSB and BP.

The survey findings and the full guide are available as PDFs.